Under the new GST regime to be effective from 1 July 2017, sindoor, bangles and bindis have been exempted from tax. However, sanitary pads are still considered to be "luxury" goods and will be taxed at the rate of 12% (lower than the earlier 14.5%). The campaigns run and petitions signed to exempt sanitary napkins from taxes did little to stir the patriarchal mindset of the ruling regime. What does this imply about the attitudes of the Hindu majority in India?
Firstly, the sindoor-choodi-bindi trio is a traditional Hindu metaphor for a married woman. Indeed, assertion of marital status is hardly so explicit in female followers of other religions. Unmarried women are not required to adorn themselves with these accoutrements and widows are prohibited from wearing them.
We cannot claim to belong to the 21st century if religion and tradition continue to gain unreasonable precedence over biology and basic human rights.
Now on to sanitary pads—according to a study by AC Nielsen in 2011, sanitary pads are used by merely 12% of the 355 million women who menstruate in India. Nearly three quarters of women admitted that their families could not afford sanitary pads.
Yet the ruling regime has evidently put the needs of Hindu married women before those of every female in the country who has attained puberty and menstruates. Healthcare and education have always been the last priority for India, exemplified by its meagre allocation of GDP towards these sectors. We are obviously a lot more proactive about safeguarding cultural practices.
Why is proving her marital status fundamental to a woman's existence? Why are these symbols of wedlock more important than the need of every girl and woman, whether married or unmarried? Is it rational to place tradition and rituals over basic human rights? Have we become oblivious to the distinction between choices and necessities?
While sindoor is directly related to marital status, bindis and bangles are no longer only markers of marriage. The latter are symbols of femininity that are also popular among young girls and unmarried women. It is a well-known economic fact that a fall in prices raises demand. By doing away with taxes on these non-essential accessories, does the government aim to encourage the modern generation to embrace femininity? Or is the government trying to counter the trend of more and more women choosing to eschew markers of marriage?
Are we trying to revive Manu by incentivising our women to clearly display the tag of "unavailable" on their person? Is this another means to control women's sexuality?
Menstruation has got everything to do with belonging to the female sex, so why are sanitary pads being categorised as luxury goods and subjected to tax? Perhaps the reason is that these are not used by many (only 12% of the menstruating population, as mentioned above). But the reason is the problem in itself. Every female has the right to health. A recurring necessity such as this ought to be provided everywhere and at the most economical rates.
Every female has the right to health. A recurring necessity such as this ought to be provided everywhere and at the most economical rates.
The root cause is the menstrual taboo. Sindoor is normal and sacred; blood is dirty, polluting and profane. The Hindu upper caste has never been able to free itself from the clutches of purity-pollution norms. Taxing sanitary pads also upholds the menstrual taboo. Exempting sanitary products from tax could have made menstruation more acceptable in the mainstream society. We require wider public discussions, stronger campaigns and propagation of menstrual hygiene awareness, especially in rural areas. A tussle has now ensued between the red colour of blood and that of vermillion (sindoor). We cannot claim to belong to the 21st century if religion and tradition continue to gain unreasonable precedence over biology and basic human rights. It is high time we sort out our priorities.
PS: It must be noted that sanitary pads too have their flipside. They are non-biodegradable and aggravate the inefficiency of waste management in India. The need of the hour is to promote the use of menstrual cups, reusable pads, etc and also devise additional eco-friendly alternatives. Moreover, merely inventing alternatives will not suffice; these should also have universal affordability and easy accessibility.